(File photo by The Canadian Press)

‘Forgotten front-line workers:’ Essential workers reveal ups and downs of pandemic

HALIFAX — It’s been a year since office towers were hollowed out, malls became ghost towns and the din of restaurants was hushed.

Yet as many Canadians were laid off or switched to working from home, others were declared essential and continued to go into work every day regardless of surging COVID-19 cases.

In an effort to understand the life of essential workers over the past year, The Canadian Press interviewed four people who have largely continued work as usual through the pandemic: A bus driver, a teacher, a construction worker and a grocery store cashier.

These are their stories.

Shane Curveon, bus driver, Kelowna, B.C.

When Shane Curveon drives the No. 23 bus in Kelowna, B.C., he greets many passengers by name.

For a year now, as the novel coronavirus spread across Canada and health officials issued stay-at-home orders, Curveon has continued to drive various routes in the picturesque Okanagan Valley city.

Like many workers declared essential, he approaches his job with a sense of duty and public service.

But after a year of working in a pandemic, Curveon has also had days of fearfulness, confusion and exhaustion.

“There were days when it was absolutely terrifying going into work,” he said, noting that for much of the first wave masks weren’t mandatory and there was no physical barrier protecting drivers.

“Masks are mandatory now but there’s no enforcement and we don’t have the authority to enforce the rule.”

Despite working with the public every day since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Curveon said bus drivers haven’t received a pay bonus and don’t appear to have priority access to vaccines.

“We’re the forgotten front-line workers.”

Crystal Isert, teacher, Lower Sackville, N.S.

Crystal Isert describes a “panic moment” last March break when she realized she’d be teaching online.

“I use a lot of technology in the classroom but that’s not the same as teaching all your lessons online,” said Isert, who teaches Grade 6 French immersion at Leslie Thomas Junior High School in the Halifax area.

The following months were a blur of long days trying to develop online resources on the fly, she said, adding that it was “trial by fire.”

Schools in Nova Scotia largely returned to in-person classes in the fall.

“It was terrifying at first because we didn’t know what the second wave would look like,” she said, noting that she worried about things like the school’s air ventilation system and the lack of physical distancing in classrooms.

After the first day of class in September, she had a headache and a raw voice after six hours of teaching with a mask on, Isert said.

But a fellow teacher gave her a face mask bracket that helped her breathe and speak more easily, and soon the constant sanitizing of student desks and hands and co-ordinating breaks became a “well-oiled machine.”

“In the beginning, it was really daunting,” she said. “But now it really is routine. The students are really respectful and I feel safe at my school.”

Francois Dore, construction worker, Ottawa, Ont.

The first two weeks of the pandemic were the hardest for Francois Dore.

The iron worker, who builds structural steel buildings in Ottawa, was sent home until the project he was working on was declared essential.

“It was good to go back to work,” Dore said. “I think it helps to keep the same routine as much as possible.”

Still, while he goes to a job site every day, a lot has changed.

The construction worker wears a mask all day and does a lot more “housekeeping,” he said.

“We try not to share tools and once we’re done with them, we sanitize them,” Dore said. “At the end of a shift, we spray down the tool boxes.”

Although there were times he felt nervous going into work, especially when there was uncertainty about how COVID-19 spread, overall Dore said he’s felt safe.

“I’m glad I could keep busy,” Dore said. “I would have never wanted to stay home.”

Jennifer Hoar, grocery clerk, Ucluelet, B.C.

Every day, Jennifer Hoar stocks vegetables at the Ucluelet Co-op grocert store on the west coast of Vancouver Island, replacing the “blue bearded tomatoes” with fresh red ones.

But her job as assistant manager in the produce department has gotten harder over the past year as the store grappled with supply issues.

It started with a shortage of 10-pound bags of potatoes, then bags of carrots were in short supply and more recently mushrooms were out of stock.

“It’s been a little crazy,” she said. “At first we just couldn’t keep anything on the shelves because people were stocking up. Then things didn’t turn up.”

The store would order six pallets of toilet paper, and three cases would arrive, Hoar said.

With some co-workers in self-isolation or caring for family, Hoar logged long days.

But she said neighbours in the small community of about 1,700 year-round would drop off lunch for the store’s employees, from pizza to Sri Lankan curry, and the $2-an-hour pay bonus helped raise morale.

“I was happy to be at work because I didn’t have to go through that isolation,” Hoar said. “Coming to work is sometimes hard but staying home can be hard too.”

Still, there are days when the exhaustion of working in a pandemic has crept up on her, especially when customers don’t follow public health protocols in store.

“It’s quite disconcerting now when people walk up and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention,” she said. “We are a resort town and this has happened numerous times with visiting people.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cowboy Kicks, originally scheduled for May 5, will now take place Sept. 18. (Contributed photo)
Westerner Park’s Cowboy Kicks fundraiser moved to Sept. 18

A major fundraiser for Westerner Park and the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell tries to tip a point shot past Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Car Tetachuk in WHL action Friday night at the Centrium. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels struggles continue, drop seventh straight to Hurricanes

Hurricanes score three power-play goals in 6-3 win

Downtown Red Deer patio restaurants have been busy this summer. Contributed photo
City of Red Deer expediting patio application process for restaurants

The City of Red Deer is allowing businesses to install patios prior… Continue reading

RDC Queens forward Camryn Wallan was named the 2020-21 RDC Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Wallan, Podgorenko named 2020-21 RDC Outstanding Athletes of the Year

Even with the cancellation of the 2020-21 Alberta Colleges Athletic Association, RDC… Continue reading

A new Angus Reid poll says that close to two-thirds of Albertans think premier Jason Kenney is doing a bad job handling the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
75% of Albertans disapprove of Kenney’s pandemic leadership: poll

Nearly 75 per cent of Albertans believe Premier Jason Kenney is doing… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

Here masking tape was applied to both sides of a joint to be caulked. Peeling the tape off as soon as the caulking is smeared with a finger leaves behind a neat edge. (Photo by Robert Maxwell)
Houseworks: Unheated spaces can cause tools to rust

Q: How well do woodworking tools survive in an unheated Canadian workshop?… Continue reading

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is seen in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. The University of Victoria and the head coach of its women's rowing team have denied allegations of demeaning and aggressive treatment outlined in a lawsuit filed last summer by a former student and team member. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Canada's Julia Grosso, right, and Wales' Natasha Harding battle for the ball during the women's international friendly soccer match at Leckwith Stadium, Wales, Friday, April 9, 2021. Canada blanked Wales 3-0 but lost captain Christine Sinclair to an injury in the fist half of a soccer friendly Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-PA, Nick Potts
Canada blanks Wales in soccer friendly but has injury scare with Christine Sinclair

Canada blanks Wales in soccer friendly but has injury scare with Christine Sinclair

Canada's DTH Van Der Merwe, left, is tackled by Hong Kong's Toby Fenn, during the 2019 Japan Rugby Union World Cup qualifying match between Canada and Hong Kong, in Marseille, southern France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Claude Paris
Canadian rugby star DTH van der Merwe enjoying life in Los Angeles

Canadian rugby star DTH van der Merwe enjoying life in Los Angeles

Team Canada skip Brendan Bottcher, right, makes a shot as second Brad Thiessen sweeps against Germany at the Men's World Curling Championships in Calgary, Alta., Friday, April 9, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Bottcher heads into men’s world curling playoffs on a winning note

Canada’s Bottcher heads into men’s world curling playoffs on a winning note

Justin Rose, of England, hits out of a bunker on the seventh hole during the second round of the Masters golf tournament on Friday, April 9, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Rose clings to 1-shot Masters lead as Spieth, Thomas lurk

Rose clings to 1-shot Masters lead as Spieth, Thomas lurk

People shop for essential items at Costco as pallets block off aisles and sections that have been deemed non-essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, April 8, 2021. Retailers in Ontario are adjusting to new lockdown restrictions with stores like grocers, discount and big box chains roping off non-essential items from underwear to calculators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Ontario retailers adjust to new rules, non-essential goods off-limits to shoppers

Ontario retailers adjust to new rules, non-essential goods off-limits to shoppers

A worker smooths concrete at a construction site in Toronto on January 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March, unemployment rate falls, Statistics Canada says

Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March, unemployment rate falls, Statistics Canada says

Most Read